Robin Labs — maker of the eponynous personal assistant app — has been in the news of late because of a leaked video that shows a mobile app personal assistant customized to run on Yahoo services. While that app and their association remain the subject of “ongoing conversations,” Robin Labs has come to CES in Las Vegas with other news: it’s raised funding from electronics maker Pioneer Corporation, and it’s working on a new version of its personal assistant that integrates into Pioneer’s in-car rear-view mirror system.
The funding, Robin Labs’ CEO and founder Ilya Eckstein tells me, is an extension of its seed round, and comes from IT Farm, a venture fund connected to Pioneer. It brings the total raised by Robin Labs up to about $1 million: previously it had raised about $700,000 from a group of angels that includes Esther Dyson. The company is now preparing to raise a Series A.
The new app, meanwhile, marks a new chapter for Pioneer. At CES, the company is showing off its latest Networked Entertainment Experience line of in-car connected touchscreen devices. These incorporate things like navigation, music, and more. But in a section separate from that, it’s presenting a picture of what is to come.
While Pioneer has been known as a leader in speakers and other audio technology, here it is showing off rear-view mirrors that double as touchscreens. The idea is that while navigation screens can be useful, a mirror is far less obtrusive and is a place a driver already regularly glances (or should, in theory).
It is here that Robin is making an appearance, powering Pioneer’s Drive Agent Mirror. This is an Android-based voice-driven personal assistant embedded in a car rear-view mirror, where the voice interface and the natural language understanding (NLU) platform come from Robin.
In the demo that I saw, the rear-view mirror is a bit wider than a normal one. When it’s turned off, it’s fully reflective. When turned on, one-third of it turns into a touchscreen device.
There, you can select from a menu that is a customized interface of the same features that appear on the Robin app that already exists. This includes maps, navigation, street parking, local listings, weather and so on. You can navigate the whole menu, as well as the items within it, using your voice.
Adding a personal assistant into a connected mirror is a clever move for Pioneer and Robin because it’s a way to make a voice assistant — and corresponding visual information that it provides — as seamless an experience as possible.
“To create the ultimate human machine interface for the driver, one needs a superior combination of truly natural voice & language understanding technology and flawlessly integrated hardware components,” Eckstein says, “which is why we are excited to join forces with Pioneer, the world’s top expert on in-vehicle infotainment systems. Together, we are well positioned to radically improve the driving experience for car owners around the globe.”
Pioneer and Robin Labs are, of course, not the only two to be eyeing up this opportunity. Although Pioneer may be a leader in audio equipment, the battle for who will be out in front in connected cars is still wide open.
Given that it may be some time before we are all using self-driving cars that let us completely stop paying attention to the road, I’d wager that those software and hardware makers who concentrate on making the connected experience as undistracting as possible are some of the players to watch here. (Another one is Meta, the YC startup that has developed a set of 3D augmented reality glasses but is already formulating ways of incorporating the technology outside of the headset and into the wider space of the vehicle you are driving.)
On the side of Robin Labs, while an implementation with Pioneer is definitely a cool progression for them, it also underscores another part of the startup’s ambition: to create a platform that can be used across different devices, and different verticals to provide a voice-responsive personal assistant to everyone and for everything. It’s this platform that is the basis of the Pioneer prototype, and also of the Yahoo assistant app in that leaked video. Eckstein tells me that while Robin Labs will continue to work on specific implementations like these in 2014, the plan will be to release an SDK so that any developer can use it anywhere they want.
This will put Robin into direct competition with a heavy hitter in this space, Nuance, which this week also unveiled Nuance Cloud Services, which will let developers integrate Nuance’s voice-recognition and natural language processing engine into their apps. (One of the first demos of this, this week, was in the Omate Smartwatch.)
Eckstein acknowledges that there is competition there, but also contends that the two are targeting their products to different audiences.
“Nuance is targeting the Fortune 500 companies, while we focus on the rest of the world,” he told me. “Nuance is purely B2B, we are (B2)B2C. So at the moment, our platforms are not competitive to each other, market-wise. And in case we do end up in a competitive position, so be it, it does not deter us. This industry is ripe with examples of David vs Goliath, and especially in the case of Nuance, I believe their near-monopoly in speech tech will not last much longer.”